Not all children’s entertainment should be bright and cuddly. Sure, that’s the Disney flavored tone that tends to dominate the genre, but it’s far from the best form of family entertainment nor is it necessarily what kids actually like. That’s certainly not the type of movie that The Boxtrolls is and it’s an infinitely better flick for it. The film comes from the stop-motion animation geniuses and Laika who previously delivered two similarly horrific children’s tales in Coraline and ParaNorman. But, The Boxtrolls’ tone comes from something else; a distinctly British school of kiddie entertainment. It’s based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters, which springs from the type of darkly Gothic and morbidly funny family storytelling that’s best embodied by the works of Roald Dahl. These types of stories are naughty, yet moral. Kids still learn lessons, they just come from a world of lovable monsters and snarling adults rather than anything that could be labeled cute. The target audiences of ankle biters with brains will eat it up, and grown ass people who should know better will probably fall in love with the twisted little movie as well.
The story takes place in town of Cheesebridge, a timeless land mixing up medieval and industrial images. Cheesebridge is haunted by local monsters known as boxtrolls and everyone has been taught to fear them by the dastardly Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). He spins tales about the horrid nightly activities, but in reality the boxtrolls are closer to Santa’s elves in their behavior, if not appearance (They are certainly trolls who wear boxes. That much is true.). In reality the boxtrolls roam the city at night fixing things, disposing of trash, and generally helping out in the shadows. Snatcher just wants them feared and destroyed as part of his selfish plot to join the aristocratic cheese-eating society known as the White Hats (don’t ask). For years, Snatcher’s plan has worked. However, the trolls brought up a baby boy for a decade (Issac Hepsted) who is now able to talk and wants to shed some light on his lovable monster buddies. When he makes friends with a little girl (Elle Fanning) whose father is the most powerful White Hat in town, it seems like he might be able to spread the truth. Unfortunately, these stories never quite go as planned, now do they?
The most enjoyable aspect of The Boxtrolls is just how gleefully co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi revel in the naughtiness of their material. There are no concessions to soften the horror influence for a family audience. Archibald Snatcher in particular is a downright nasty villain and looks the part with rotted teach and a horrifying complexion. When the audience gets a peak at his allergic reaction to cheese, the animators hold nothing back in his disgusting, monstrous contortions. It the type of material lesser studios would smooth out of a family film concerned that it might frighten children. The gents at Laika are wise enough to know that not only will kids find it hilarious, it will be their favorite part. Annable and Stacchi pile on their gothic imagery through a beautifully twisted production design as well as some of the smoothest and most beautiful stop motion animation ever projected on a big screen. It’s a gorgeous technical achievement that even boasts 3D that’s actually immersive and enjoyable. The film is a wonderfully hilarious Grimm-style fairy tale in filled with delightfully sardonic British humor and a moral about acceptance that doesn’t feel cloy for an instant.
That distinctly and darkly British humor caries over through a pitch perfect vocal cast from across the pond. Sir Ben Kingley steals the show as Snatcher, channeling his greatest performance as Don Logan in Sexy Beast into a PG kiddie monster to remember. The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by brilliant British comedians like Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Richard Ayoade, who give the movie a subversive wit to match all of the monster movie imagery. The result is a blast of pure, joyous entertainment. Animation buffs will marvel at Laika’s exquisite work, British comedy snobs will laugh themselves silly, horror fans will delight at how dark the filmmakers go, and children of all ages (even those who qualify as legal adults) will watch the movie with big dopey smiles on their face. Unless you’re uptight about what may-or-may not be appropriate subject matter for children, it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone having a bad time with The Boxtrolls. This just might be Laika’s finest achievement to date and the company is quietly humming along with vintage Pixar quality consistency that deserves far more attention. They just might be the best animation company around these days and if you want to know just how impressive their work is, stay around for a mid-credits meta joke that hilariously showcases the insane amount of effort that went into every single second of The Boxtrolls. All of that effort went into crafting one charmingly sick joke and boy was it ever worth it.